Article from the July / August 2008 Issue of the Mission Magazine New World Outlook


By Grant Hartman

“Hey, there is another one over here under this rock. I found a big one with his tail sticking out. Let’s get it!”

After a bit of a struggle, a large iguana was captured by Hector, one of our new Mexican friends, with the prudent help of our AWARE team. The team was in the countryside looking for rocks that could be used to construct the gabion at the back of the Give Ye Them To Eat (GYTTE) “Tree of Life” training center near Tlancualpican, Mexico.

What is a gabion? It was one of the first things I was exposed to on our trip to Mexico. It is a large box-shaped basket made of chain-link fencing, filled with rocks and dug into a ditch near the side of the road. Because of the gabion, the ditch fills with topsoil over time, becomes suitable for planting corn, and protects the road from washing out. The AWARE team was picking up rocks for use in a gabion, not for the purpose of hunting iguanas.

Salatiel Rodriguez, a GYTTE instructor, puts finishing touches on the gabion at the training Center .

The village of Tlancualpican is about two hours and 114 topes (speed bumps) southwest of the city of Puebla. Puebla is a large city of about 2 million people located in the state of Puebla at an elevation of about 7,000 feet in south central Mexico. It is guarded by an active, majestic volcano, Popocatepetl, which generally produces a plume of smoke or steam to prove that it is alive.

Tlancualpican is a village of approximately 3,500 people who are proud to have a basketball court in the zocalo, the center of town, where the Sunday open-air market is held. Nearby is the Catholic church that was built in 1544. A few blocks away is the Methodist church, which has been in the community since the early 1920’s and has an active congregation that is supportive of the local GYTTE Tree of Life training center. (New World Outlook, March-April 2008, p. 6) The GYTTE program, based on integrated development models, is led by United Methodist missionaries Terry and Muriel Henderson.

The active AWARE volunteer program was conceived and is directed by Muriel Henderson, who has an advanced degree in Christian Education and is a motivating teacher when it comes to teaching US volunteers about the realities of life in rural Mexico. I have taken part in the GYTTE program over the last 12 years. Throughout that period the AWARE study program has remained an important part of my GYTTE work-team experience.


A GYTTE instructor (far right) teaches seminarians how to make cylinders for rapid composting.


What Is AWARE?
AWARE, Alternative Work-study And Reality Experience provides a valuable foundation for team members traveling to the GYTTE projects in Mexico. Mexico has a unique culture and history, and AWARE allows volunteers to experience the country first-hand to get acclimated before starting work projects. An overnight stay in Puebla provides a gradual transition to the culture. And a Monday morning class at GYTTE’s Tree of Life center provides basic information, such as “don’t drink the water” and “be careful what you eat”, along with some basic Spanish words. This increases the likelihood that work-study team members will stay healthy and gives participants a chance to communicate with the Mexican workers from the village who are blended into the AWARE teams.

A “Rural Reality Day” enables work-study team members to experience the types of activities encountered daily by a typical Mexican family. Meals are included! One learns quickly that the work is hard, the pay is low, and the food is basically corn tortillas and beans.

Our day starts with an early wake-up call because our Mexican coworkers start work at 6:30 a.m. We may have a cup of coffee before the study activities, which include an early morning AWARE experience with devotions. We get a break at 9:30 for almuerzo, or Mexican brunch.  Because the work projects are suspended at 2:30, when our Mexican coworkers go back home to their village - many of them to a second job – we have an afternoon AWARE activity. The activity may be visiting a school to take part in a program like “More Than A Bandage”, in which we give out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children who came to learn about oral health care. We may visit a home in a village in which a composting toilet is being constructed by family members. They are proud of their efforts, even though they may not have running water in their outdoor kitchen made of stick walls and a metal roof.

This year, we visited a home in a village where health-care workers from GYTTE were presenting a program on AIDS. Many villagers attended. Evening may find team members with time for reflection in the palapa, the thatched-roofed teaching facility and perhaps a Thursday night worship service at the local Methodist church. Many interesting discussions take place about poverty, Third-World living, and hunger. This well-planned study program led by Muriel Henderson provides a real experience that changes lives.

Mission Awareness Grows

Estela Jiménez Solis, an instructor for GYTTE, shares information about AIDS with villagers.

The AWARE study program is important because it generates a special excitement for the GYTTE program. This inspires others back home to support the program financially or take part in the next work-study team. I know a college student who became part of an AWARE team. She felt strongly about the program and after she graduated, she spent several months helping with the GYTTE program. Then she made a career choice to join the Peace Corps, based primarily on what she had experienced through the AWARE program. Her life was changed!

Lives of the local village people are also changed. The AWARE program put us in touch with the local church in Tlancualpican through its Thursday night worship, where we got to know some of the youth of the church. In order to complete their high school education, two of them had to take the bus to Puebla to take courses they needed to qualify for college, but this was difficult for them to do. We returned to our home church and told our congregation about the youth. “How can we help them?” members of our congregation asked.

The palapa classroom at the Tree of Life Training Center.


Our church decided that we should help them to further their education. It took them a year to complete their required courses. Since then, both of them have completed college with our church’s support. One has a degree in education and the other has a degree in communication. Both are currently teaching development classes to local villagers at the Tree of Life Training Center. Other young people from the village and some children of GYTTE’s staff members currently receive scholarship funds.

Because the information and excitement generated by GYTTE work-study teams inspired our congregation, our church in Indiana raised additional funds. This money went to purchase animals for Mexican families. The families receiving animals are trained to care for the animals. Through the AWARE program, we went to a small community to see an animal project. Pig pens were properly constructed and the pigs are doing well. One single mother with children who received a pig was very proud of her project. The pregnant sow our church provided has had piglets. Each piglet was worth three weeks of a person’s daily labor. What an impact!

Perhaps the most important role of the AWARE program is the resulting interest of the work-study teams in the GYTTE Tree of Life training center. Each time a work-study team comes to Mexico, the members bring funds that pay for tools, materials, and local laborers. US work teams generally focus on the construction of buildings at the Tree of Life center. The dorms, dining room, teaching facilities, animal facilities, sports court, and a house for the missionaries were all constructed by teams using locally obtained building materials purchased with work-study team funds. In addition, wells, solar pumps, animals and workshops on terracing, composting, and gabions have been paid for by teams and used to teach appropriate technology to the local people. Without these buildings, materials, and resources, training poor villagers in south central Mexico would be difficult. It has been estimated that more than 10,000 people have been touched in some way this past year by GYTTE.

As an example of how this ripple effect takes place, every other year seminarians from the Methodist Seminary in Mexico City come to the Tree of Life center for one week to learn about rural technology that they may need as pastors serving in the rural sector. Some of their churches will, in turn, pass on the skills they acquire through the center. This work-study week helps future Methodist pastors become more effective in their ministry and enables them to give their parishioners hope for the future.

Another example of the ripple effect is the More Than A Bandage program, in which village women come to the center for three one-week training sessions in health and nutrition. Their lives are changed by the study program. They impact the lives of others by teaching the basics of good health to people in their communities as well as adressing first aid needs.


AWARE team members meet in the palapa at the Tree of Life Training Center.

All to God’s Purpose
Many lives are changed by the GYTTE program, not just the lives of the AWARE participants but also the lives of many Mexicans. They have had the opportunity to learn concepts of sustainable living at the training center and then to teach their friends and family members, building hope for the future.

Although AWARE may look like a construction project, those who experience the program gain new understanding about Christian commitment. Through the eyes of faith, this volunteer work project becomes an international journey, which eventually works to help those in need on both sides of the border.

The AWARE program is unique to the mission field and contributes greatly to the success of the GYTTE program. It is a win-win-win situation as missionary staff, local Mexican people, and work-study team members all receive heart-warming blessings.

Yanet and Miguel, scholarship recipients who were able to finish high school and college.

AWARE highlights the challenges facing Mexican people and provides a window into what is for most Americans an unfamiliar culture. US participants study and visit GYTTE projects within the context of the Third World-in village homes where a lack of running water and electricity are the norm. We experience the reality of the Third World and are made aware!

We open up to new experiences and new ways of thinking. Our friend Hector, referenced at the beginning of this article, was hunting iguanas for a purpose, not just for sport. His quick hands were faster than the rapid movement of the three-foot-long reptile. To the amazement of the AWARE participants, in Mexico iguana meat is considered a delicacy. After loading more backbreaking rocks onto the truck during the heat of the day and then taking nice hot (solar-heated) showers, we gathered for the last meal of the day. The iguana tasted just like chicken!
Grant Hartman, Jr., a PH. D. in Food Science and Biochemistry, founded a food pantry at Simpson UMC and is director of the Evansville Emergency Food Pantry System in Evansville, Indiana. He and his wife Jean have participated in eight volunteer trips to GYTTE in Tlancualpican, Mexico.